BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After a decade of planning and about 45 minutes of final discussions, the Fort Madison City Council voted Monday to move ahead with relocating the Amtrak Depot to its original location in Riverview Park.
The council, during a rare Monday meeting, approved, with a 5-0 vote, three agreements that would put the project on the Iowa Department of Transportation’s lists of projects for bids. Councilmen Travis Seidel and Chad Cangas were absent.
City Manager David Varley said IDOT would still need some final agreements from Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak, but they would now have everything they need from the city to proceed with the project.
The project, which had come under scrutiny from several council members when Varley announced an initial annual cost to the city of $50,000, came in better favor when Mayor Brad Randolph and Varley were able to get Amtrak to revisit insurance requirements. The $50,000 came down to $34,000 when an insurance requirement was picked up by the rail service.
Amtrak will also be paying $4,800 a year in rent payments in the new building which creates a net $29,200 annual cost. Varley said the costs could be a bit higher in the first year as the city determines what all will be needed to best fulfill the agreements.
There are three agreements that were approved including a sublease agreement, a landlord agreement, and a construction agreement.
Varley spent 15 minutes outlining the agreements and the history of the project.
There was still some confusion between Randolph and Varley about the actual cost to the city.
“David originally was at $50,000 and said a more realistic number would be $34,000,” Randolph said. “So let’s say $35,000 and we’ve negotiated an additional savings of $15,000 on the insurance side. So if our operating costs were closer to $35,000 and we take off the $15,000 because we aren’t paying insurance were now at $20,000 and we take off the rent that leaves us with $15,000 to manage.”
But Varley said the insurance savings was already figured into the lower rate, which took Randolph by surprise.
Randolph said that wouldn’t be possible because the insurance break hadn’t been negotiated prior to the lower projections.
Varley said the $35,000 came in after they spoke with Amtrak.
Councilman Rusty Andrews said either way, it was a very good negotiation on the part of Randolph and Varley.
As it stands, the city is looking at paying $35,000 and it was recommended that 60% of the costs comes from city Hotel/Motel tax revenues, with 40% coming from the general fund. That amount would result in $16,200 coming from hotel/motel tax with a credit of the $4,800 in rent revenues from Amtrak and the additional $14,000 annually from the city’s general fund.
Bob Morawitz, who’s running for the 2nd Ward council seat in Tuesday’s election, asked if the funding mechanism was part of any of the agreements, which Varley said was not the case.
“I just wanted to make sure because I’m not in favor of using the hotel/motel tax to pay for this,” he said.
Chris Sorrentino, who’s running for mayor in Tuesday’s election said the expenses being spent won’t be realized in revenue.
“How do we justify the $20,000 to $30,000 per year it will cost the city to operate that. That’s my biggest thing.”
Councilman Chris Greenwald said with the numbers, it’s bringing people into the community for $4 per day. Greenwald, who owns River City Motors Plus, said if he could spend $4 per person on advertising he’d do it everyday.
Andrews, who had reservations about the program with the original $50,000 annual cost, said the city dumps money into many entities in the city and they do it without a concern for revenue because it’s a service.
“It’s a gamble I’m willing to take now. We’ve got the cost down to a respectable amount. It’s tax dollars and the majority of the town is not going to benefit from it,” Andrews said. “Let’s put this Field of Dreams, I used to call it, to bed and hope to God it works.”
Councilman Brian Wright said it’s a pride issue from what he’s hearing from his constituents.
“I was on the fence like you were, but after talking to people in the ward, they say we’ve come this far and it comes down to having something of history and it’s a pride thing.”
Councilman Kevin Rink said he’s heard Amtrak thought about pulling service in Fort Madison.
“I’ve heard we’re damn lucky Amtrak didn’t pull this 11,000-person service out of town,” Rink said. “Would I rather get off where the depot is now or up here where it’s nice and redone..where it should be.”